WHEN THE LEAVES FALL ON LAVALLETTE
I’ve thought a lot about dying recently. With any luck I’ll have quite a few decades before I have to face it. Yet it’s there all the same. Sometimes I think about how many cigarettes I’ve smoked, how many beers I’ve drunk, how many drugs I’ve done, how many pieces of fried chicken I’ve eaten, my throat begins to tighten and I have to lie down on the couch. Holy shit, I think, I’m going to have to go through this dying business and all I’ve done this week is get drunk and go to a job I don’t even like.
In October of 2013, my mother called me from New Jersey and told me my grandfather was in the hospital. She talked for a few minutes, but I heard only fragments like: “morphine” and “no more treatments.” So I packed my car and drove north from Virginia.
The following afternoon I arrived at the hospital near Poppy’s house in Lavallette on the New Jersey coast. I felt guilty for not having seen him in three months. The elevator opened to the oncology wing’s smell of cleaner and urine. After weaving through the maze of hallways, I eventually found and hugged my parents. In the room behind them was Poppy, whose condition was worse than anything I conjured on the seven hour drive.
The skin cancer, which had started as a small bump 18 months earlier, had eaten his face. From just below his eyes—halfway down the bridge of the nose—to the chin, was no longer flesh. The right side of the nose was consumed by a dark, oozing, scabby mass that was partially stuck to yellowed gauze, the whole of which was beginning to sink into his face rather than—as had initially been the case—outward from it. The lips weren’t lips: they had become swollen, dry, flaky dark masses that invaded the inside of his mouth, including the bottom row of teeth—like an over-sized cuticle on the base of a fingernail. As he lay in bed with his eyes closed, right hand on his forehead, his mouth was partially open and hardening puss ran from where one lip had been to the other, as if it was a string of chewing gum. His body must have been twenty pounds lighter since the last time I’d seen him, legs as skinny as a boy’s.
The smell was horrific.
I took a deep breath through my mouth, walked in and grabbed his hand before kissing him on the forehead. “You look great,” I said. He tried to laugh and then grimaced, hand shaking over his eyes. “Do you want me to close the blinds?” I asked. He shrugged and I closed the blinds anyway. I wouldn’t know for another hour that it wasn’t the light hurting his eyes; the cancer had invaded the flesh around his sockets.
He suddenly kicked his feet, eyes wide.
“You okay, Poppy?”
“I have to pee,” he said. “I have to pee.”
So I went into the hall and told my parents and waved down a nurse. He tried to get out of bed and then the nurses finally arrived. To their surprise, he’d successfully gotten out of bed the prior night. With the door partially closed, the nurses had him pee into a bedpan as I walked to the window with my hands locked on top of my head. I tried not to cry while the wind blew leaves around and around in the courtyard below.
One weekend when I was small my parents had a picture window installed in the dining room at my grandparents’ house as a fortieth wedding anniversary present. My brother, sister, and I marveled at the window, how much sunlight it let in. My grandfather particularly liked it. He moved his solitaire games from the kitchen table to the dining room table so he could look out on the backyard.
He moved his solitaire games from the kitchen table to the dining room table so he could look out on the backyard.
I spent many days there—after church, Sunday dinners, weekend sleepovers. My parents were happy to get time to themselves, and my grandparents were happy to have time with us. Most of the time, at least. When spring came, once in a while a thump came from the window, but it took some time to figure out that the window was so transparent that birds were trying to fly through it.
I remember walking through the living room one afternoon when I heard the thump. I walked to the window and looked down but couldn’t see anything. So I went out the back door and found a bird on its side under the window. Its wings fluttered frantically. I wanted to help the bird get to its little feet and then fly off. I wanted to bend its beak back to how a beak was supposed to look. I started to get upset when Poppy came outside and stood behind me with a hand on my shoulder and the bird stopped moving.
“He’ll fly again, won’t he Poppy?” I asked.
“I don’t think so, kiddo.”
Poppy got a plastic bag from inside and we walked to the woods at the far edge of the backyard, dug a shallow grave and buried the bird.
A couple of hours later, I helped my grandparents hang pieces of stained glass and flower pots in front of the window.
“We won’t let that happen to any more of our flying friends,” Poppy said.
Dad walked over from Poppy’s hospital room and stood next to me at the window.
“This is horrible,” he said.
I knew that my grandfather was dying. Sure, I was upset that he would soon be dead, but I was also aware that he had lived a long, mostly healthy life. What upset me most was the recognition that the dying was going to be painful and drawn out. And here it was, only beginning. I’d watched the older people in my life slip away—an ugly business, but with the sadness of death there was always at least a modest celebration of life. It seemed that Poppy’s death, however, would be the ugliest, and without pomp and circumstance.
As much as I wanted to be anywhere else, I knew I had to be there for my family. Sometimes, when I wonder how selfish of a person I am—and I certainly am one—I think about all of the times I force myself to do the right thing, even when it’s the last thing I want to do. I at least acknowledge that sometimes I can be a decent person, which makes me feel a little better.
I cleared my schedule for the foreseeable future.
One of the difficult parts about facing my own mortality is the recognition that few people, if any, outside of the small number I’ve touched, will care who I was. So, does it matter that my grandfather’s name was Robert Degelmann, the son of a German born attorney? Does it matter that he grew up in Secaucus, New Jersey, in the shadows of New York, where, in the 30s and 40s there were pig farms as far as the eye could see? Does it matter that my grandfather often said, about the pig farms, “if your eyes ever forgot where you were, your nose never did?” Does it matter that over the course of his 50-plus year career, he worked his way up from a clerk at a bank to its Vice President, staying with one company for every working day of his life? Does it matter that he playfully spanked his wife’s ass, in front of his grandkids, until the day she died?
Does it matter that Poppy moved from that house after she died, selling it to a young couple who now looks out that picture window at fresh landscaping that must make them feel the house is theirs? Does it matter that Poppy built half of that house with his own hands? Does it matter that in that basement he kept a woodshop where he built birdhouses, wooden rabbits, dressers and chairs and taught me how to use a saw? Does it matter that Poppy began drinking Dewar’s on the rocks with a twist at noon?
It matters to me, and to the people left living who he touched. But what really terrifies me about dying is being forgotten. And that is inevitable—the slow retreat to the absolute darkness of the cave of nonexistence. Only a few avoid it: Shakespeare’s done a good job. Jesus did the best.
But what really terrifies me about dying is being forgotten. And that is inevitable—the slow retreat to the absolute darkness of the cave of nonexistence.
Poppy wanted to be discharged from the hospital and go home.
“Why would you want to get away from all of these cute nurses?” I asked him.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “they’re being cute all right. Je-sus Christmas.”
We wanted him home, too. His doctor agreed that at home he would be most comfortable. She explained how the cancer had progressed over the prior weeks. How radiation treatment was no longer helpful. Something about fungal infections. Bacteria. Dying from one thing or dying from another thing. “All we can do,” she said, “is make him comfortable.”
An ambulance drove Poppy home. Two medics about my age lifted him from the stretcher and into the house. The man who held the stretcher by Poppy’s head crinkled his nose as he stepped off the back of the ambulance.
A few hours after Poppy was setup in the hospice bed in the living room, the rest of my family left. My mother and aunt decided that they needed to clear their heads. So I stayed at the house, the only family member present, with two home health aides I’d known for at least a year. Once again, I found myself doing something I didn’t want to do: be the sole family caretaker for my grandfather. I didn’t want to do it because my legs were shaking with fear. I had no idea what I was doing.
Judy, the hospice nurse, arrived in a station wagon. At first, I was elated.
“We want to make him comfortable,” was one of the first things she said, adjusting her black horn rim glasses. “We’re going to implement a medicine regime,” she said as we stood in the kitchen, looking into the living room at Poppy’s bed. “I have enough morphine for you until the FedEx package comes tomorrow with more. I have Ativan tablets here for the anxiety.” I was hoping she meant they were for me. “Liquid Ativan will be arriving tomorrow as well. And I’ll be here each day to check on your grandfather’s progress.” I asked about how to deliver the morphine and the Ativan, and the stages of dying. Judy answered softly and deliberately, never looking at the clock. After the morphine demonstration, I walked over to Poppy’s bed.
“Poppy, I’m going to give you some medicine that’s going to help with the pain, okay?”
“Yeah. Okay, kiddo,” he said, his words muffled as if his mouth were covered by a towel.
“Open your mouth just a little bit, and I’m going to squirt some of this medicine under your tongue.”
“Now,” Judy said, “get it under and as far back as you can. Nice and slowly now.”
My hand shook and the syringe touched the cancer where it had overtaken the front teeth, which caused Poppy’s eyes to squint. I took a breath, repositioned the syringe and released the clear liquid in his mouth. Poppy puckered his tumored lips again and again, rubbing his tongue along the roof of his mouth.
“So will he be getting an IV to keep him hydrated?” I asked Judy in the kitchen.
“No,” Judy said. “Our goal is not longevity. Our goal is comfort.”
“So no food either, then?”
“Only if he asks for something. But he’s not going to be able to have much.”
Judy left and I picked up supplies from the pharmacy. I stood with my hand on my chin in front of the shelf of adult diapers. Maybe, I thought, I’ll bring back an array and model them so Poppy can choose the one that looked most comfortable.
Back at the house, I sat with Poppy and gave him coffee out of a dropper. I played Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett CDs. Occasionally, Poppy hummed along. I held his hand.
Every hour or so, I left the room so the health aides could change his diaper. Adamant about getting up and going to the bathroom, Poppy put his leg over the rail. But after the first few times of convincing him to stay in bed, when I noticed him kicking his feet, I simply left the room and he did his business.
In the living room, during one of these intermissions, I picked up a framed 5x7 photo from the bookcase. In it, Poppy stands behind the captain’s chair of his first powerboat. It seemed like it was just a few months ago, but, in fact, it was a decade. That decade was the first of my adult life and it had snuck by me like the night does after hours and hours of drinking. The first decade of my adult life was just that: a hazy long night of drinking. And I was just coming to, late in the morning, wondering what had happened. I had to wake up. To snap out of the haze.
I wanted to talk about dying with Poppy. But instead I talked about the weather. How the beach had eroded again. How Murphy, his black miniature poodle, didn’t like to walk on the sand. How my girlfriend was beautiful and smart and how much he’d like her. How roads flooded simply from high tide in Norfolk, Virginia, where I lived.
“The backyard is starting to look like a rainforest out there,” I said. He chuckled.
“Do you think I should get out there and cut it?” he asked, his voice more muffled than earlier. We smiled at each other, looking one another in the eyes. I knew that he knew what was happening. And if he wanted to talk about it, I’d listen. So I went out back and took the weed-wacker to the three-foot weeds. When the wire broke off, I put down the weed-wacker and frantically started pulling one weed after another until my hands bled.
I stayed with Poppy until 11pm, when he seemed to fall asleep—hard shallow breaths that were exhausting to watch. I went to The Crabs Claw, the bar and grill Poppy frequented for lunch and scotch, where I quickly drank a couple of beers. The bar emptied.
“Have you been in recently?” the bartender asked. “You look familiar.”
“Not since August. I’m Bob Degelmann’s grandson. Know him?”
“Sure,” he said, nodding. “How’s he doing? A bunch of us have been worried. Haven’t seen him in weeks.”
I told him what was going on and he poured me a shot and we drank together.
“Keep us posted,” he said. “A lot of employees and regulars would go to the services.”
Services. I hadn’t thought about that. Churches and coffins and cemeteries.
On the walk back to the house the wind blew the few remaining leaves from the trees that lined the road. I was irritable and restless and the alcohol hadn’t helped much.
At the house, I sat with Poppy, who slept, until 1 a.m. I told the aide who stayed overnight to wake me if anything happened. I didn’t know what I meant, but it seemed we both knew that if something happened, we’d recognize it when we saw it.
At 4 a.m., the aide banged on my door.
“He’s trying to get out of bed,” the aide said. The something had happened. I dressed while stumbling down the hallway and almost fell over. In the living room, the high lights dimly lit, Poppy’s right leg hung through the gap between the rail and the end of the bed, and he tried to pull himself up and over.
“Poppy. Are you doing okay? It’s Geoff.”
“I need to pee,” he said, voice gargled.
“Let’s get you your medicine, and then we’ll get you up to the bathroom, okay?”
He nodded and released his grip from the bed. I went into the kitchen with the aide and looked at the record sheet of times and doses of medicines.
“Did you give him the Ativan yet?” I asked the aide. She shook her head. “It should have been given to him an hour ago. We need to ensure that overnight we’re giving him the medicine exactly when we’re supposed to.” I broke up the Ativan pill and put it in a bit of pudding, measured out the proper dose of morphine, and walked back to his bed.
“Okay, Poppy. I have something for the pain here, and something that’s going to help you sleep a bit more comfortably.” There was that word. That fucking word. Comfortable. There was nothing comfortable about any of it, and I wanted to yell at Judy, right then, for using it. But she wasn’t there. “Open your mouth just a little. Some of the medicine is in this pudding.” My hand shook as I put the long spoon into his mouth. With a grimace, Poppy swallowed. “All right, Poppy. Now I’m going to put this syringe in your mouth.” I squeezed out the liquid too quickly. It was only 10 CCs but it came out all at once and he had a hard time swallowing it.
There was that word. That fucking word. Comfortable. There was nothing comfortable about any of it, and I wanted to yell at Judy, right then, for using it.
“What are you trying to do? Are you trying to kill me?” he said after he finally got it down.
“I’m sorry, Poppy. I’m so sorry. I’ll do better next time. I’ll do better.”
He opened his eyes for the first time since I’d come downstairs. They were a deep grey, the color of lead. But there was enough of a glittery sparkle to them that I knew he was still there. Look at his eyes, I told myself. Nothing else. I held his hand. “It’s okay, kiddo,” he said. And as the medicine hit his bloodstream, his muscles relaxed and he closed his eyes. “You’re doing fine.”
Upstairs, I rolled around and around in bed. Every time I closed my eyes, the images of the day were there. Earlier, it had taken me twenty minutes to pick what I wanted to eat off of an Italian restaurant’s menu. It had seemed like the menu was in Italian, and I couldn’t make sense of it. I told myself that I’d done okay, but I couldn’t get what he’d said out of my mind. Are you trying to kill me?
The next day, his two best friends, Marie and Arthur, came to visit. Poppy had known them for 65 years, although they’d seen little of each other over the prior five on account of Poppy’s often belligerent drinking. They introduced Poppy to his wife in college. While cleaning out the house weeks later, I discovered a photo of the night my grandfather had met my grandmother in the early 1950s after a college dance. Each were dating different people at the time. I was struck by their youth: they were just a few years younger than I was while holding the photo.
In the living room, Marie and Arthur sat on the piano bench. Marie looked out the window and Arthur looked down at the floor as they talked about how, during the summer, they used to rent the house next door. They talked mostly to me, asking about my brother and sister and told me about how their grandson, who I’d known well when we were kids, had gotten a job as a sports agent. After ten minutes, they got up, kissed Poppy on the forehead.
“We’ll see you soon, Bob,” Arthur said.
“Yeah. Okay then,” Poppy said and I walked them out the front door.
“Holy shit,” Arthur said as he held onto the railing while walking down the stairs. “My best friend,” he said, shaking his head. “Holy fucking shit.”
By nightfall, I had to get out of there. It was getting hard for me to breathe.
“I need to take care of a couple things at Mom and Dad’s house,” I told Poppy, feeling guilty. “But I’ll be back tomorrow. And Mom will be here first thing in the morning.”
“Sure. Okay, kiddo,” he said, opening his eyes. “But do me a favor.”
“You got it, Poppy.”
“Talk to your grandmother before you leave.”
I nodded. “Have you been talking to her?”
“Yeah, sure. Of course I have. She was here earlier with Marie and Arthur.”
I nodded. Poppy hadn’t had any morphine in twelve hours.
“I’ll talk to her, Poppy. Do you need anything?”
He opened his eyes and turned his head toward me. “I’m just glad you’re here.”
“I love you,” I said.
“Jesus do I love you.”
They were the last coherent words we spoke to one another. Sure, I went back and saw him, but two days later, not the following day as I had told him. I just couldn’t do it. I had these crying fits that started as I drove the Parkway North towards my parents’ house, and came at random for days. I cried as much for Poppy having to endure so much suffering as I did for recognizing, for the first time in my life, how brutal dying really is.
I’m not a faithful man. That’s not to say that I’m completely spiritually bankrupt, but I lost my religion soon after the Catholic Church confirmed me. Regardless of the reality of whether my grandmother was present to him or whether it was a drug and near death induced delusion, it doesn’t matter. She was there for him. And it’s a moment I’ll wonder about until I’m on my own deathbed.
In the prior few years, I’d convinced myself that my own death might be soft, quick, comfortable. Seeing Poppy in his condition forced me to begin to grapple with the reality of my own end, whenever it might be: I could be forced to endure unimaginable suffering. For weeks, I woke in cold sweats in the middle of the night. Some nights I saw Poppy’s face in those nightmares. Some nights I found myself in his body.
When I did go back to Poppy’s house, I met my mother and sister there. We stayed at his bedside until the wee hours of morning. For much of that night, every few minutes Poppy’s eyes suddenly opened wide and his head rose inches off the pillow and his arms stretched out in front of him, hands shaking with tightly curled fingers reaching, maybe, for the heaven he saw above. Or maybe he tried to reach for something that he could hold onto—something that could help him fight the gravity that pushed against his chest. The grayness in his eyes had intensified as the sockets sunk farther into his skull, and each time he opened those eyes he squinted and looked at me, my mother, my sister, and when he realized who we were, he closed them again and rested his head back on the pillow.
“No one ever goes quietly,” the hospice nurse had said. “We’re all terrified.”
Poppy tried to speak but what came out was a gargled mess of sound. I thought of giving him a morphine overdose. Of killing him. Those nightmarish tremors, causing him to rise from the bed, were too much to handle. I wanted him to die as soon as possible. Why couldn’t we kill him? Wouldn’t he want me to kill him? “Je-sus Christmas,” he would probably say. “Why won’t you just be done with this business?”
At his bedside, I’d been arching my back, just so, to be able to hold his hand and look in his eyes when they opened. After hours, the pain in my lower back spread, muscles throbbing almost in rhythm with my heart. There was something pleasurable about the pain.
“He prefers you to me,” Mom said to me in the kitchen when we took a tea break. It was the only healthy action any of us were taking.
“That’s not true,” I told her.
“Sure it is. He gets anxious when I’m there talking to him. But he looks for you when he’s awake.”
“I’m sure it’s just a man thing. You know how private he is.”
The truth was that I believed he was still there—his mind trapped in a dying body—and I spoke to him little different from how I had been speaking to him for years. Maybe I was a bit softer, but I spoke to him as if he was still in the room. Because he was still in the room. Mom, on the other hand, spoke to him with a high pitched tone: “Dad, why don’t you take a little nap, huuuuh? Just a little nap, huuuuh? We’ll be here when you wake up. O-kay?”
I left for Virginia a couple of days later. I whispered in Poppy’s ear, said thank you for showing me how to be a man and that it was okay for him to go. He breathed those quick, shallow breaths.
At work the next day, my mother called, said he had died. I was relieved. Relieved for him that it was finally over and relieved for my family. It had been eight days from the time we got him home from the hospital until his death.
My favorite photograph of my grandfather was the one from the bookshelf that I’d picked up during one of those intermissions when I’d walked out of the room so that the aides could change his diaper. In the same frame, it hangs on the wall of my apartment in downtown Norfolk, Virginia. It was taken ten years before he died. I look at it almost every day as a reminder of what it means to live life, squandering less. He stands at the captain’s chair of an 18-foot bow-rider, hands on the steering wheel. It was a beautiful fall day for New Jersey. Poppy wears a plain blue baseball cap with prescription sunglasses below the straight brim and a faded orange polo shirt tucked into khaki shorts. His face is cleanly shaven, full head of white hair sticking out from under a cap. It’s one of those moments of truth—where the camera doesn’t manipulate how he’s feeling. He’s alive. And for at least a few more decades, he’ll stay that way.
Geoff Watkinson is the founding editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com), an online literary magazine, in 2012. He teaches composition at Old Dominion University, works as a technical writer, and has contributed to Guernica, The Virginian Pilot, Moon City Review, and Bluestem, among others. He's working on a short book of personal essays, and a biography about the superintendent of a mental hospital during the first half of the twentieth century, for which he would certainly love some representation.